• Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • A 10-Year Stroll

    A 10-Year Stroll

    With hundreds of spectators lining Main Street in Brattleboro, the groomed and bedazzled heifers are led down the center of the street to the cheers of onlookers. Hundreds of cows preen for the delighted crowd, followed by more farm animals (bulls, goats, and horses), tractors (also decorated for the parade) floats, clowns, marching bands, street performers, and all manner of groups touting their various farm affiliations.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • After the Fire

    After the Fire

    Barn’s burnt down…now I can see the moon. –Chinese proverb

    Yet the converse is also true: Yes, we can see the moon, but it won’t shelter tractors, nor can vegetables be washed, packed, and stored inside its lovely glow. Oh, the moon is beautiful, but what can it do for food and a business after the fire is put out?

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Getting Everyone to the Table

Brattleboro’s Community Food Security Project

Liz Sheehan of the Community Food Security Project and Amy Frost from Circle Mountain Farm at the Westgate Farmers’ Market
Liz Sheehan of the Community Food Security Project and Amy Frost from Circle Mountain Farm at the Westgate Farmers’ Market

Written By

Angela and Richard Berkfield

Written on

September 01 , 2009

Food has the unique potential to bring families and communities together like nothing else. But food, or access to food, also has the potential to illustrate how communities are segregated. In our society there is a distinct, yet often overlooked, separation between low, middle, and upper classes, and between people of different races, with the bulk of economic and educational privileges reserved for white, middle-income and upper-class folks. Unfortunately, food reflects this societal separation.

While some people in Vermont have committed to eating fresh, locally produced food as often as possible, many residents of our state are struggling just to put food on the table. A key theme that has emerged from our first year of work on the Community Food Security Project in the Brattleboro area is that many families just aren’t earning enough income to buy staple foods, not to mention fruit and vegetables, and buying local and organic is simply out of the question.

Breaking Down the Barriers

As part of the vibrant local food movement of Vermont, the citizens’ groupPost Oil Solutions (POS) has been working toward food sustainability since it was founded in 2005 to help build a self-sufficient, post-petroleum society. We joined POS in the spring of 2008, as students at the SIT Graduate Institute, and we soon began working with POS Executive Director Tim Stevenson and fellow SIT student Liz Sheehan to design a food security project that would reach out to all community members. We felt it was important to address basic food security issues in light of the fact that more than 10 percent of Vermonters are hungry.

The result was the Community Food Security Project, whose mission is to increase access to locally produced food for people of all incomes around Brattleboro. We took our inspiration from the nationwide Community Food Security Coalition, which defines community food security as “a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, and nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.” With this as our goal, we collaborated on and initiated a variety of projects: several new community gardens, including one at the Oak Grove Elementary School; self-watering container garden projects with several partners, including the Southern Vermont AIDS Project; a partnership with the Vermont Food Bank’s Salvation Farms Gleaning Network to bring gleaning to the Brattleboro area; a two-acre farm at the SIT Graduate Institute; cooking classes and community meals; community-wide education and outreach on food justice and food sovereignty; and the Westgate Housing Community Farmers’ Market.

Many of our activities, such as the community gardens, were fairly easy to organize in an atmosphere that supports local food. However, one of the greatest challenges of our work is that it focuses on a generally overlooked segment of society—people who are often subject to the decisions of policy makers and nonprofits, but who are rarely at the decision-making table. Being very aware of our own white, middle-class privilege, we felt a need to break down personal and societal norms and barriers that kept us from listening to the voices of others in order to build true community. We recognized that if we were going to truly bring all community voices to the table, we had to be intentional about building community across race and class.

This is why we initially conducted a Rapid Community Food Assessment in which five focus groups from diverse perspectives—including people of low-income, farmers, policy-makers, and nonprofit staff—came together to discuss food security in the Brattleboro area. This was a chance to learn together about the barriers to food security and what is currently being done about them, while also discussing what needs to be done to make the area more food secure. Based on the data collected in the focus groups, we produced a report called “Healthy Food Is a Human Right! Community Food Security for the Brattleboro Area,” which includes many recommendations for future actions.

The Westgate Housing Community Farmers’ Market

One of the ideas that came out of the assessment was to create a farmers’ market at the Westgate Housing Community, a 98-unit low- to middle-income community in West Brattleboro. We met with residents multiple times, including during a potluck with a nearby farmer, Amy Frost from Circle Mountain Farm. She was interested in selling some of her produce to Westgate residents, so she gave a projected picture of what a weekly “market basket” would contain and at what price. A small group of customers agreed to participate for the season. 

The project started with 10 baskets, and more folks have joined each week. At the time of this writing, there are 15 market baskets purchased every week, and folks—especially the kids—are excited to walk down to the market outside their building, talk to Frost, and pick up their fresh veggies. Frost relies on her regular CSA shares and retail sales at the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market for the majority of her income, and therefore is able to offer residents the reduced rate of $15 for a full weekly market basket and $7.50 for a half-basket.

“As a farmer, I am low income, and to be able to make a living and serve other low-income neighbors is refreshing,” Frost says. “And I am honored to be able to spend time with my neighbors and to grow food that is affordable for people who don’t fit into the traditional market model of retail prices. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Jesse Kayan, Westgate’s community services coordinator who helps organize the pilot project, notes that “While many lower income folks continue to be frustrated by how unaffordable it is to access local food, the Westgate market basket program is one step toward bridging that gap and making good food affordable to everyone.” A key component of the pilot project is that folks can use their food stamp benefits using EBT cards.

Lessons Learned

By intentionally working with low-income housing sites such as Westgate, we crossed a barrier that opened up space for new interactions and learning. Each site presented its own unique set of opportunities and challenges, which shaped the potential collaboration. In many cases, our ideas of what to bring to a community were altered after meeting with community leaders and residents. One site said that they were surprised, and honored, that we were taking the time to work with them. Another site never contacted us again after our meeting with them.

A valuable lesson came out of one particular community. In the early stages of our project, we brought a middle-class perspective to our work by promoting community gardens there, instead of working with the community to discover their food security needs. Our initial meetings were promising, but the momentum was gone by the time spring rolled around. When the housing authority proposed garden space to the residents, nobody signed up and the project was dropped. Instead of giving up, we proposed to at least work with kids in the community to grow a pumpkin patch, and eventually we planted a Three Sisters garden and some flowers with the children. While we succeeded in starting a garden, though, it was not a successful community-building project, as there was little community involvement. The lesson was that we need to support projects that come out of communities, instead of doing what we think is needed or wanted. We hope that next season we can learn from our mistakes and build on the work of our first season.

There is much work to be done to mobilize more community support and participation in achieving community food security in Vermont. We hope you, too, will join the community food security movement. For more information, visit our blog at http://my.opera.com/foodsecurityproject/blog/ or e-mail the authors: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The Post Oil Solutions website, where the Rapid Community Food Assessment can be read, iswww.postoilsolutions.org.

Photo by Barbi Schreiber: Liz Sheehan of the Community Food Security Project and Amy Frost from Circle Mountain Farm at the Westgate Farmers’ Market

About the Author

Angela and Richard Berkfield

Angela and Richard Berkfield

Angela and Richard Berkfield are community organizers with the Community Food Security Project of Post Oil Solutions. Angela studies social justice and Richard studies sustainable development at the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro. They and their son, Birch, live at Amazing Planet Farm and Justice Center in Williamsville.

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